WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Tuesday that Russia is sending attack helicopters to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime and warned that the Arab country's 15-month conflict could become even deadlier.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. was "concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria."
She said the shipment "will escalate the conflict quite dramatically."
Clinton's comments at a public appearance with Israeli President Shimon Peres augured poorly for a peaceful solution to Syria's conflict. Officials from around the world are warning that the violence risks becoming an all-out civil war, with Middle East power brokers from Iran to Turkey possibly being drawn into the fighting.
Diplomatic hopes have rested on Washington and Moscow agreeing on a transition plan that would end the 4-decade-long Assad regime.
But Moscow has consistently rejected outside forces to end the conflict or any international plan to force regime change in Damascus. Despite withering criticism from the West, it insists that any arms it supplies to Syria are not being used to quell anti-government dissent.
With diplomacy at a standstill, the reported shipment of helicopters suggests a dangerous new turn for Syria after more than a year of harsh government crackdowns on mainly peaceful protests and the emergence of an increasingly organized armed insurgency.
Russia and Syria have a longstanding military relationship and Syria hosts Russia's only naval base on the Mediterranean Sea. But in light of the brutal violence, the U.S. has repeatedly demanded that any further deliveries of weaponry be halted. Russian military support in the form of materiel as advanced as attack helicopters would deal a serious blow to efforts to starve the Syrian army of supplies.
Some 13,000 people have died, according to opposition groups, but the U.S. and its allies have been hoping that sanctions on Assad's government and its increased isolation would make it increasingly difficult to carry out military campaigns..
On Monday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland decried what she called "horrific new tactics" by Syrian forces, including the use of helicopters to fire on civilians from the air. She called the attacks a "very serious escalation" and said Syrian commanders would be held responsible for any crimes against humanity.
Clinton, as well, warned about a massing of Syrian forces near Aleppo over the last two days, saying such a deployment could be a "red line" for Syria's northern neighbor Turkey "in terms of their strategic and national interests."
"We are watching this very carefully," she said.